"Green" building should be changing the way houses are built in this country. I'm a "green" contractor, and I can assure you it is happening, albeit in a small way. But how can you tell if a house is "green" or not? Shouldn't we at least have green roofs and decorative details that allow you to say, "Look over there: That's a 'green' house"?
But it's really much more subtle than that. A Victorian house has gingerbread scrollwork around the porch; a Georgian house has high columns on the front. But "green" building doesn't look any different than conventional modern construction. You can't easily distinguish a "green" structure from any other without getting The Story first.
The reason you need to understand The Story is that much of what green builders do is invisible. And what doesn't happen is as much a part of The Story as what does. Conventional modern construction favors the use of glues such as construction adhesive and PVC cement; they contain solvents such as toluene and methyl ethyl ketone that are downright poisonous. "Green" builders also think the typical waste of heat and fuel resources is a shameful outrage. What's more, conventional modern construction uses a lot of engineered products (such as glue-lams and particleboard) that are designed with economy in mind rather than the health and well-being of humans and the planet we live on. Now, I don't have anything against "economy" as a concept, except that it tends to be a steamroller -- and I tend to be the cute, furry woodland creature in front of it who is caught by the tail, flattened and paved over.
A "green" builder will tell The Story of a thousand strategies to avoid using toxic materials. There are safe and perfectly viable alternatives that everyone could use. Wood, stone, metal and glass are basic materials that have been in use for centuries. Obviously, they are still around today and are the basis of going "green." There are also alternative paints and glues that are safe even for people who are extremely sensitive to chemicals. OSB (oriented strand board) and particleboard are "glue boards" containing small amounts of formaldehyde, which off-gases for years. Try using real wood instead. Sustainably harvested wood is available and even certified by national ratings.
Electricity and heating fuels are consumed, it seems, without thinking. Taken for granted, energy is readily wasted. You can waste it with your eyes closed. Houses just keep getting bigger, and every year there's a new "indispensable" appliance. Yet with a little forethought, energy can be captured easily and conserved effectively. Solar hot water, space heating and daylighting are all old, well-established technologies. Electricity from sunlight has become a practical reality. Compact fluorescent light bulbs can save two-thirds of the energy used by old-fashioned incandescent bulbs. Some states even offer tax credits to help pay for solar heating and electrical systems.
"Green" building does have its glamour, but for the most part it's a quiet and hidden process. Awesome views and high ceilings have nothing to do with it. Arched windows are neither "green" nor "not-green," and architectural style is really not the point.
"Green" building focuses on inhabitants' long-term health and well-being. "Green" buildings are energy efficient and free of harmful toxins. They frequently use recycled, renewable and natural materials. They tend to be low impact and create minimal waste.
Hollywood would have a hard time telling The Story. Their shots would be predictable, I think -- shallow and alien. You'd have aborigines living under straw, or pioneers in sod and log houses. Witches and hobbits would inhabit the realm, making clever use of organic mosses and huge rain-forest leaves. And the implied, sneering message would be, "Real people -- i.e., those who aren't health-food nuts or tree huggers -- wouldn't want to live this way."
But a master marketer could craft a different picture. In such hands, a "green" home would suddenly become sexy, a status thing. Obtainable only by the rich and powerful, a "green" house would be something desirable. You might even like to be invited to a dinner party there, with a sauna by the pond before the meal. The host would tell us The Story of the house -- how it was built with a "right relationship to the environment," and how protecting good health saves money in the long run. I'd hear about the medical costs of living in a subtly toxic environment, in which chemical poisons and dubious ethical choices erode the finer fabric of life. "The government has lost the high ground," the host would growl. "It's up to us to watch out for ourselves and each other." With advanced alternative-energy features, the house would keep functioning even when the grid goes down. "How courageous," I'd say.
Wealth aside, it's a fact that real people with normal budgets can afford things that are environmentally sound, as when we buy organic or eco-friendly products. A whole house costs a lot, but the smaller details that go into one are readily available.
Toxic chemicals are invading our lifestyles, and the public policymakers can regulate only the most life-threatening substances. Environmental abuse gets worse instead of better every year, and world policymakers haven't succeeded in stemming the tide. Housing in this country is a huge part of the problem. But this need not be so; the alternatives are there. All that's needed is the will to use them.
John Senechal is a "green" building contractor who lives in Asheville, North Carolina.